Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Working for the Jan

Some Januaries in AK bring cold, clear stability, and despite their short days, open the window for some of the first big lines of the season.
Josh O more accurately described January 2013 as "chilly and windy, waiting for 40 and rain."
That easily summed up the last week, where above freezing temps climbed well past the highway elevations and basically to treeline in Turnagain and Summit. Accompanied by the warm, was wind.
This made for some very comfortable after work skate skiing last week, but did not bode well for weekend adventures.
Tele-Pete, yet again, clicked into his skis as the windows began to open on Thursday, and marched up nearly 1,000 vertical feet of supportable crust, only to find an unaffected, densified powder just above 2,000 FSL.
Josh and I headed to my new favorite playground on the NE side of Colorado Friday morning.
Weird lighting inside Fresno Creek County Jail. Things were about to get burly.
I was curious to see if we could pick up the Fresno Mines Road that slabs Colorado's north side for a more direct route to the playground. I suspected the road would start at a recently active mining claim across the street from the Mainitoba lot.
We canyoned out, but having made it far enough back, decided to try our luck scaling up the walls and through the brush.
We were clicked out of our skis and kicking steps in no time, swearing up a storm, eating pine needles like sprice chickens, and fighting our way through dense hemlocks for 45 minutes until we busted out. Things got so bad for a while that I would have to squirm my way through the branches about two ski lengths forward, then Josh would slide me the skis and poles and follow.
Once out of the brush we found the road, and I was forced to sleuth its beginnings later on the way out. As it turns out, this road starts near the Lower Summit Lake lot, for future reference and pain avoidance.

Looks like AK.
 The supportable crust did make for easy cruising on the way up; has safely sealed up all the buried vegetation; and despite running fairly high up, transitioned from supportable to breakable to powder in a distance as short as two vertical turns.
The powder Pete reported on Thursday had dried out and lightened up overnight as expected, and exploded into cold smoke in every turn.

Yours truly, courtesy of Josh.
We notched a run, and then Josh decided to go aggro on a small clump of alders. I didn't see impact. but I heard it loud and clear, and caught sight of Josh's orange boots where his head should have been as he flipped forward into the snow.
Alders always win.
At the top of the next run, Josh noticed the alders really did win. The top sheet of one of his skis had ripped up under the binding to make some sort of new fangled, reverse, top-side camber. Except for the side-to-side torsion, it didn't seem too bad, and the snow was sweet, so we launched again.
At that point though, Mr. Wind had noticed our fun, and wanted some freshies too.
Thing is, when Mr. Wind wants freshies, he gets 'em all. In the course of one run our slope had lost half its snowpack, and temps had dumped 15 degrees since we started. I had on all my layers, despite having been dressed pretty warm given the day's earlier high ambient.
We called it.

Moon coming up over the 20 Mile Valley from the northern slope of Turnagain Pass.
By Friday night the northwest wind was raging through the passes and temps had ditched it down to -10 on the ridge lines, with no hope of an inversion setting up. I figured I'd call the rest of the weekend a loss and skated surprisingly good trails despite a low ambient in Kincaid on Saturday, pretending I could feel the sun.
Tele-Pete, undaunted, headed up into the sure-to-suck cold and windy mountains and found that favored aspects were holding their own, and still skiing quite well.
More, sheltered aspects were showing good signs of stability.
Stoke: On.
I've had what's locally known as the Moonrise Shoulder of Ravens Ridge in my sights for a while as an optimal mid-winter locale, and it seemed like an ideal time to investigate.
The area features a broad, south-facing shoulder, two cirqs, and a peak known as Nancy's Peak or the Pfieffer Horn.
There are a ton of different lines in here, most unskied due to massive cornices that build up off the ridge. Mike C. joined me for this endeavor sporting his new DPS Wailers.
Moonrise Shoulder of Ravens Ridge.
Steep uptrack.

I will never tire of this view.
The climb up the shoulder was steep and at times daunting, but stability was good except for a few suspect fresh pillows that were easy to avoid.

Somehow, the winds died as we hit the ridge, and even though the ambient was probably no better than 5 below, I was comfortable enough to have a PB&J.
It was good to be back on top of Ravens. It's hard to believe it's been almost 3 full years since I've been up there.

Mike makes his first turns on a mellow ramp in Moonrise Bowl. 

Though the snow was consolidated after days of no additional accumulation and continuous wind, the cold air had sucked it dry and the powder skied super slow with a lot less of the pizazz Josh and I saw on Friday. It was good nonetheless.

No justice done here.
Ya, so, is it next weekend yet?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In Colorado...

There is a phenomenon up here that involves the Coloradan. At some point, there is a good chance that every outdoor enthusiast in AK will get into a group where at least one individual whose spent some time in Colorado will feel the need to make repetitious statements about the state of Colorado, and how it sizes up to Alaska.
There are not often complimentary of AK.
These comments are not suprisingly not well received by people that came to Alaska seeking Alaska, not hoping to some how find Colorado somewhere near the Arctic Circle.
Alas, there is a place in Summit Pass, where perhaps a Coloradan could feel at home, though only in name and little else...and for the record, most of those who ski Colorado Mountain in Summit could give a damn about how Colorado Mountain compares to Colorado the state.
Tele-Pete gets creative credit for this weekend, and has been dutifully keeping an eye and his skis on snow conditions there through the week. Pete,reported that Colorado would be the ideal place to head.
While various sources are moping (LINK), rather loudly at that, about the dearth of snow up here this winter, a lot of it is probably a result of  being jaded from the 100-year winter we had last year and ugly conditions down at sea level.
Up high (1,000 feet plus), for the most part, snow packs are about average and slowely healing; and in some cases they are comparable to a year ago.
The one major exception is Summit Pass. Summit is WAY under. Impenetrable alders still blockade the lower slopes of a lot of the hot spots.
Colorado was a bit tricky to get into, especially for mid-January, but having bushwhacked up this peak a number of times, it's various dead-end spruce alley ways and thick meadows of alders have become fixtures in some primeval part of my brain, singed there by experiences I'd rather not repeat.  
Jack and I arrived at the trail-less trail head under gray skies and started picking our way through a mostly breakable crust, that gradually became thinner and drier as we gained elevation.
At the base of the knoll that breaks Colorado's east slope, the crust disappeared, and as Pete reported, we found boot-top powder that went all the way to the last of the hemlocks before turning into slabby wind crust.
Pete, who was a bit behind us, reeled us in, and we took a run down the normal east face.
The next lap, recounting a day we veered northeasterly, Jack and I headed down the so called Santa Clause gully that drains into Fresno Creek. At the base of the gully in the meadows we found the vegetation was well covered, and meadow skipped all the way to the Fresno mining road where we found an old skin track. When we looked up, we saw Colorado's northeast face above us, and we knew what we had to do.
Off-angle shot of Colorado's northeast face.
We felt bad, as Pete had headed back around the knoll, and we had initially intended to head back up Clause Gully and rejoin him, but the terrain here needed our desperate attention.
The face was well protected from a northeasterly wind by Fresno Ridge across the way, and may have even held slightly deeper and less settled snow, not to mention a steeper, longer, and unbroken run.
Jack, wading up through some fresh on the northeast side.
Jack launched the first run down this side and quickly threw up some big contrails on the steeper slope.
Exiting back to the highway later that day turned out to be far easier even on a board than it typically is thanks to a few sets of tracks heading down and firm crust to stay atop of.

On Sunday, Colin and I headed back.
We hit the trail head and were greeted with hot and heavy snowfall that was coming down at well over an inch an hour and plastering onto everything. Six inches had accumulated overnight at the road, and by the end of the day would total about a foot there.
We didn't waste any time, and rebroke a trail first up the east side, then dropped lower Clause gully right away, and broke a new trail up the northeast side.
A nice perspective of the party slope on the northeast side at the top of the hemlock line.
In retrospect, I wish we would have just gone up the mining road to this area, but I'm not completely clear where it starts, and the uptrack on the east face made exiting in the dusk a bit easier.

Powder cloud.
 After a party run from the hemlocks, the skies began to break up overhead, and the snow started to back off.
The slabs we encountered the day before above the trees were now covered, and the fresh snow was hanging on tightly, so we pushed higher up into the alpine and dropped the upper portion of Clause gully.
There were a tenuous few minutes as we transitioned off those slabs, that the day before creaked and groaned loudly, but today were stealthy quiet under the new snow, though still sitting atop the same lurking garbage hoar at the ground level. Once we made it a bit higher up the rib we were essentially on a foot of fresh on top of maybe two inches of crust on top of tundra and could again breath a little easier.

South side of Fresno Ridge looking good.
 As we went for what appeared to be the last run of the day, the skies really started to split and the evening colors came out. With less than an hour of daylight on the table, we slammed it to the floor and pushed all the way to the skyline ridge so we could drop Colorado's 2,000 foot east face express route.
While access is still a problem, a lot of the upper portions of Summit's big runs are starting to look really nice. Tri Tip beckoned.

Colorado Peak proper, as seen from it's skyline ridge.

We schussed across the top of the express route and found that it's south-facing entryway was shallow, but the north-facing entry had a nice slab under the day's fresh snow, which was now somewhere between shin and knee-deep and undisturbed by the wind.
We hurriedly transitioned, and dropped into the long run with the Pass lit up below us.
I think I felt the base once on my first turn. It was bliss the rest of the way down to the meadows.

The express route from the meadows.
Colin said he thought I was joking when we left the car and I mentioned something about skiing till dark. That's just the way its supposed to be right?

This was the first weekend too that I took my new set up, a Jones Carbon Solution (LINK) with Karakoram Split30 bindings (LINK) out. I'd used the 30s before on the Voile, and was more comfortable with them on this outing, as seen below. The Jones Solution is definitely a new beast and rides much differently than my Voile Mojo. Conditions were ideal for it actually, and it performed well. It will probably take another day or two of making turns to really get settled on its ride, but one thing that will take no adjustment: it climbs like a champ.

Forgot a bottle opener? No problem. We improvised and it turns out the Karakoram Split30 base plates work perfectly for popping the top off a refreshing recovery drink.

Ahh. Is it next weekend yet?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Beast of the East

At the end on my last post, I mentioned that Winter Storm Euclid (the NWS has taken to naming storms in the Lower 48, I’d love to see them try that up here…) was dumping.

By the end of it, nearly a foot had fallen at the house, more up high..
While I laughed at the northeasterner’s concerns over the snowfall, alas Euclid got the last laugh. The snow totals quickly caused me to develop a case of FOMO, and a planned trip to visit my sister in Bar Harbor, Me was eclipsed first by unsafe driving, and secondly by powder fever.
Amy and I toured the Norske trail during the tail end of the storm, and the next day in clear skies, I skated in bliss on the pillowy trails at Rikerts for a little over 3 hours.
The blue sky was short lived though, as a second system moved in less than 24 hours after Euclid had moved out.
While this storm promised to bring less snow and remained unnamed in the eyes of the forecasters, a “sit-and-spin” pattern developed, leading to an additional snowfall of 6-8 fluffy inches on top of Euclid’s now firm deposit.
Ashar and I skied some not-so-secret glades on Saturday afternoon, and the fresh and still damp snow skied fast underfoot, letting us ride lower angle trees with speed and ease.
Waxing up. I pulled a Rosignol Proline circa 2002 out of retirement and strapped on snowshoes to get after the BC goods.
Coming down.

Not a lot to see, but plenty to ski.

Fueling up Downeast style.
Conditions only furthered my FOMO issues though. Some of the best east coast backcountry conditions I’ve ever seen had set up – conditions that are oft hoped for in March, let alone late December. In the upper elevations a 1.5-3 foot thick, firm base buried most debris, stumps, and rocks, while up to a foot of blower lay on top. Blue skies were forecasted to prevail as well.
Powder fever is hard to cure nor ignore, and a second planned trip looked threatened.
I had planned to spend Dec 30 in NYC absorbing urban culture and pizza made by pros, but the urban jungle had lost its appeal in the face of face shots and snow-covered hardwood forests.
I pushed my south-bound travel date back a day, and hastened my return trip north by a day as well.
The decision proved to be a good one. The skies parted on Sunday and I headed into a secret glade. 

"W" marks the spot.

Hardwood glades, hard to beat.

Secret views.

Dusky retreat.

Having not been to this locale since I left the East Coast, and being relegated to snow shoes with the board on my pack, progress and route finding were sub-optimal. Trail breaking was absolute hell. On my first ascent I did scope out several sweet lines, and the snow was worthy of as many laps as my little heart and tired legs could handle. Face shots were common, and I enjoyed riding atop several glacial erratics and hopping protruding ledges.
New Years Eve day I awoke early and drove to Albany where I boarded a train to Penn Station.

Southbound on the shores of the Hudson. I miss trains.
 There I was greeted by Seth, who escorted me to the Port Authority, with a stop for coffee and long-overdue catch-up. I then hopped a bus, and two hours later Bernie picked my up outside his home in Allentown.
After hanging out with Travis, who made the trip out to visit as well, we rung in the New Year with some of Bernie’s Pa crew, and the next morning wrung ourselves back out with a short but fun MTB ride on some local trails. An inch of slushy snow over a mostly frozen ground didn’t stop us, but it sure made us muddy.

Hosing down the rigs.
Just 26 hours after I arrived, I was back on the bus headed north. I hopped a train in NYC and brushed some snow off the car in Albany, but this time however, I drove only to Saratoga, where I stopped in at the home of my academic advisor and unpaid life advisor, Bob.
I was feeling a little sad I had cut my trip to see Bernie so short, but the next morning snow was falling in Saratoga.
Nostalgia and a tour of this sweet little city I so often miss was not to be had: Bob had breakfast waiting and a lunch packed, it was time to make turns and he was ready.
Bob lead the way north to Gore Mountain, about an hour north of Toga-town.
The cost of a $1.00 bottle of Coke displayed at the ticket window discounted my lift ticket by several bills.
I was unsure of what to expect, skiing with my former professor, and had brought both the skis (I suck) and the board (I suck less).
I opted to start on the board, and decided if the day looked to be one of groomers and waiting at the lift line, (i.e., Bob couldn’t hang), I would mention something about icy conditions and switch over to skis. I was fully expecting that the pupil would be the professor for the day.
We started with a warm up on a long, though somewhat typically slippery groomer.
Then Bob lead the charge on a traverse across the resort to a less visited area.
From there, we dropped into the first mogulled glade.
Bob disappeared and it was all I could do to try and remember how to board the bumps and trees at the same time.
On the ride up, my legs screamed, and I pleaded for an alternating warm down run.
We hit a groomer and I watched this middle-aged professor pop air over several rolls while hammering GS turns
East coast lift serve was demanding.
I struggled the rest of the morning as Bob lead me on a whirlwind tour of the mountain, hopping between groomers and glades.
After lunch, we headed to another area of the mountain, and after getting back-spun over a mogul the size of a polar bear, my muscle memory kicked back in.
Thanks for joining.
Something clicked and I suddenly started making sense of the bumps, scouring out the side-sloughed and wind-blown powder.
Then we found a run that, despite its location directly under a lift, had some of the best snow and terrain of the day. Maybe it was the 4-5 foot tall lateral bands of rock that ran across the trail that stopped others from heading down, but it was no deterrent for us and we lapped this glory shot of a run until the sun began to sink.
The day ended with a trip back down to the lodge and a descent that featured the southern Adirondacks bathed in the golden light of the setting winter sun.
A few hours later I was back in Middlebury where I met up with Narva, who was also touring the east on holiday.
The next morning we rolled south and met up with Meg and friend Chris at Stratton.

Lunch crowd.

Narva's better side.

The way every day should end.

I spent a lot of great weekends my freshmen year of college on this mountain, so it was great to see it again.
Narv, Meg and I quickly fell into our old routine, and Chris was game. Inappropriate jokes abounded and the cold wind and loud powder were no match for our good spirits.
Our best efforts to make fellow tram riders uncomfortable were for naught; most joined in. The mid-week crowds are typically the best of the bunch.
By the end of the day our sides all hurt as much as our legs, and poor Narva, whose voice was already beginning to give that morning due to a lingering cold, could be seen skiing downhill, bent over, mouth agape, trying to laugh but nothing would come out. It was the kind of day you start to miss and laugh about before it’s even over.
That night Leila joined Narva and I in Middlebury too, and the next morning the three of us headed about an hour south to Pico Mountain where we met up with Scott and Lauren.

Skiing: it's fun!

Narva getting first track and leaving contrails


Pico, though small, has great ambiance on and off the mountain.

Ya they are!
The girls talk skiing, the boys talk skiing.
I picked Pico as out destination in part because it was budget friendly and in part because it was close (just less than an hour from Middlebury)
Pico was the first “big hill” I ever skied at – big hill being anything other than the Middlebury College Snow Bowl – and was later where I took my first snowboard lesson.
The first time I saw this cone-shaped peak rising into the ski, my neck felt like it would break. I was 9 I think.
By the time I had acquired a license and a GPA high enough to earn a Sunday pass at Killington/Pico, my friends and I blew by this much smaller looking mountain for Killington.
As noted, except for my freshmen year, I skied almost exclusively at Killington through my collegiate career only going to Pico once to lead a group of beginner skiers and riders and another time when I sported a broken tail bone.
I wasn’t expecting much out of Pico except cheaper tickets and a shorter drive.
The steadily falling snow when we arrived promised more.
We hooked up with Scott and Lauren and in no time at all, were traversing across closed trails to make it over to the apparently closed “Outpost” area.
I wondered how long we would do this before ski patrol caught on, when maybe on the third lap in this area we passed a sign that noted that, while the Outpost lift was not running, it was open to those who sought to ski under their own power.
Since when did east coast ski hills start being cool?
We made a few more laps in the untracked area before heading to the A-Slope Lift.
This is the original Pico, the Pico my mom grew up skiing with her sisters, before snowmaking, chairlifts, and a high-speed quad that actually reached the summit of the resort’s namesake.
The several hundred vertical foot slope was loaded with drifted powder, gathered on the gladded runs.
The old poma tower bases made for fun hucks.
After lunch, we aimed for the summit.
Despite blasting wind at the top, and an icy off-ramp that made unloading look like a scene from “Saving Private Ryan,” we made an amazing discovery: Pico, has got the goods.
I don’t know what the deal is, but this mountain is chuck-full of skiable glades, and I’m not talking about the glades you’ll find on your friendly mountain trail guide.
Managers might be calling their lawyers as you read this to order a cease and desist; locals might be seething that their local 401 is out on the Internets, but the woods between the trails off the summit may appear impenetrable from outside, but from within, they are amazing.
We found easy turning in the knee deep, and often completely untracked snow.
Our entryways were usually a leap of faith through a cluster of head-bashing spruce boughs that yielded to open forest within.
If we were breaking any rules, ski patrol didn’t seem to mind.
For Leila and I, where to ski on Saturday was an easy decision.

The vintage Outpost lift at Pico features vintage ski terrain (Courtesy Epicski.com).

Gorgeous light in the glades off the summit.
Views to the White Mountains off the calm and sunny summit.
Snow creatures in an empty forest.

We returned the next day to find that more snow had fallen overnight and covered our tracks in the woods, while the mountain had opened the retro Outpost area. The rusting steel towers of this two-seater lift and big powdery bumps and hardwood glades were a perfect way to kick off a sunny morning. By the afternoon we again returned to the upper elevation and found the woods from the day before just as fun.
By the end of the day, after four consecutive days of relentless east coast lift serve, I was ready to be sedentary for 16 hours, but maybe unsure about where I was going.